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No Sykes, no Picot: The Middle East is on its own

Britain's Brexit-induced crisis is mirrored over the Channel with populist forces threatening political establishments across the EU

If it were not so serious, it would be comic. The irony of  English streets emptying Monday night to watch a squabbling national football team under a bad manager get kicked out of the European Championship when England had just voted to leave the European Union. It is beyond parody.

The farce, too, of the BBC commentary team describing Spanish, German, French and Slovakian footballers with proprietorial familiarity because they play too in the Premier League. Two thirds of the 161 players from the EU and European Economic Area (EEA) in the league would not get work visas under the current criteria used for non-Europeans.

But this is serious, as the Polish community in Newcastle and immigrant communities up and down the country who have become the target of fascist social media threats are finding out. Once you unleash the Rottweilers of the right on immigration, real people get bitten. These are forces Westminster politicians are uniquely unsuited to contain.

What started with the Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians will not stop at the doorstep of British Muslims, who are already seen as the Trojan horse, the fifth column of future immigration. Look what happened during the London mayoral elections, when David Cameron used the Trojan Horse argument to attack Sadiq Khan, by alleging he had links to an imam they defamed as a supporter of the Islamic State militant group. This was malicious rubbish, protected by parliamentary privilege. When he repeated the claims outside parliament,  Defence Secretary Michael Fallon paid heavy damages and issued a grovelling apology to Suliman Gani, the imam at the centre of the planned and calculated defamation campaign.  

Hate and xenophobia kicked up by the Leave campaign forced the former Conservative Party chair Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, in her words, to change sides half way through the debate.

The Polish community in Britain is multi-layered and goes back a long way. In the Second World War, 16 squadrons of Polish fighter pilots joined the RAF. One of them, Squadron 303, was the highest scoring Hurricane squadron in the Battle of Britain. Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn published a travesty of history by likening his hero the UKIP founder Nigel Farage to a Spitfire pilot.

So we needed Polish pilots to fight our battles when democracy and sovereignty on these islands were , unlike now, under real existential threat . The Poles acquired the German Enigma cipher machine and Polish mathematicians helped decipher it. But we apparently do not need Polish builders, or Polish shops today, nor at least too many of them because they "change the face of England".  Heaven forfend that Anglo-Saxon face be changed. Once you embark on this course, you never know how far you are going to travel down the road to fascism before you can get off.  It is inevitably, though,  a one way ticket. Once you turn your back on the debt Britain owes its immigrants, the fabric of the country itself starts to unravel. In reaction to this,  Englishness itself may become a second class identity. Already post offices have run out of application forms for Irish passports, because demand has been so high. 

Some Tories are under the illusion they can restore a vision of “one nation” to the society, that their party has spent three decades undermining by slashing council houses, regional councils, health authorities, - the very bodies both immigrant and the host communities need. Just how they intend to fashion " one nation" in today's austerity  remains to be seen.

For the party which still goes under the dubious title of “Conservative and Unionist Party”  is about to break the union up too. It’s too late to give Scotland lectures. Boris Johnson wrote that he did not “detect any real appetite” for another referendum on independence soon. How does he know? From which window of his home in Islington in North London, does he sample the air in Glasgow? Whom will the Leave camp blame when a second and successful referendum will be held?

What's happened to the body politic of Britain is the eqivalent of a major air disaster.  The inquiry by accident investigators will take time. But once they recover the cockpit recordings of Cameron and George Osborne, as they realised they had put Britain into an unrecoverable stall, the lessons of this tragedy will be used to train politicians for generations to come.

This disaster had many causes: an internecine struggle burning away in the heart of the Tories since Thatcher and Major ; the refugee crisis; the banking crisis; the austerity response from Germany which kept saying to itself that the business of Europe is business; the failure of the Brussels to cope with the consequences of expansion;  the arrogance of a series of neo-conservative governments in Westminster. There were unheeded warning lights in the cockpit of Number Ten- the Scottish referendum, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party, were all part of the same insurgency.

Nor is this disaster over. Both the Tory and Labour parliamentary parties are in full-scale meltdown. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) never accepted the result of the leadership contest that brought Corbyn to power, never allowed him to lead, and is now about to force another one on the basis that he can not lead. In that respect Corbyn is the Mohamed Morsi of British politcs.

But so too is the Conservative parliamentary party at war with itself. The knives are out , here too.The following demolition of Boris Johnson’s character is penned by a fellow Tory, a fellow columnist in the right-wing Spectator, a former diplomat and aide of Margaret Thatcher.

“Incompetence is not funny. Policy vacuum is not funny. A careless disregard for the truth is not funny. Advising old mates planning to beat someone up is not funny. Abortions and gagging orders are not funny. Creeping ambition in a jester’s cap is not funny. Vacuity posing as merriment, cynicism posing as savviness, a wink and a smile covering for betrayal … these things are not funny.”

Matthew Parris accused Johnson of serial dishonesty, sexual impropriety and homophobia. The idea that the Tory party can pluck a successful future prime minister out of a debate conducted in these terms is stretching probability. Parris is right to say no future prime minister exists in the ranks of his party.

And would Johnson really want to be the prime minister with the poisoned chalice of conducting negotiations he is bound to lose?  We keep on finding out new things about the Leave camp. Now we learn they don't want to leave  at all, least of all the best bits of the EU - the single market. They want  the good bits, like the EEA but not have the bad bits like the migrants.  The actual cost of this deal to business, universities, the arts, sport, and travel industry is yet uncalculated. The price could be high. A populist like Johnson would run a mile from the headlines this would generate. Euromyths like straight bananas would be long forgotten faced with a few eurorealities. 

The dimensions of this conflagration are already impressive. Its flames are more than high enough to leapfrog over the Channel to continental Europe. 

Angela Merkel is already mindful of the blacklash she may suffer for having accepted a million refugees. Francois Hollande is a dead man walking. Merkel and Hollande both face general elections next year, and Hollande’s ratings are so low, the second round run off could well be between the right and the extreme right as happened in 2002 when Lionel Jospin was knocked out of the first round. Marine Le Pen's ascendancy to the ranks of legitimate political leader was crowned by an invitation she and the former president Nicolas Sarkozy received to the Elysee Palace to discuss the way forward.  

Italy’s Matteo Renzi faces a referendum on a new government structure and could also fall. The populist Five Star Movement has already captured Rome and Turin.

National elections in Spain on Sunday failed to resolve the political deadlock after the conservative People's Party (PP) of acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy won most seats in parliament but fell short of a majority. The country is paralysed, and incapable of dealing with historic levels of youth unemployment. 

This then is the state of the EU as European leaders gather on Tuesday to confront the worst crisis in their history. It is not a portrait of a rapacious superpower, seizing more and more control from  national governments. It is a picture of a weak and fractious entity with no answer to, and no money for,  the nationalist insurgencies sizzling away in their own back yard. 

The lesson for a Middle East that looks on bemused at the self-immolations of British politicians is clear.

Neither Britain nor Europe are in any position to offer a model of democracy and governance to the Middle East. Their hard power went with the Iraq war. Now their soft power is on the wane too. There is no one to replace a Sykes or a Picot. British influence in the region is history. It has become a client of Gulf states and leased its diplomats to them long ago. The franchise of British foreign policy is currently owned by the region's most unsavoury regimes. You are on your own, Europe is telling the Middle East, and will be for years to come. Maybe that is the one positive to emerge from this mess. 

- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent, and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A woman walks past a house where "Vote Leave" boards are displayed in Redcar, north east England on 27 June, 2016 (AFP).

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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